I honestly don’t think it’s possible to talk about Selma without referencing it’s relevancy to modern day socio-political events. That may read more as a disclaimer for the nature of the review ahead, but the film itself is no mere history lesson; it’s a fiery, impassioned and entertaining as hell portrait of a turning point in Martin Luther King’s career that only plays out like a history lesson when you factor in the context around it. As I said, it’s difficult to watch without thinking of how the struggle to get equal voting rights in Alabama in 1965 shamefully still has relevance in modern society.
The film’s masterstroke is that it never goes out of its way to make the connections between Selma and contemporary struggles for black people in modern American society (although it does namecheck Ferguson and other modern events in the awful end credits rap song, the sole factor in denying this a five star rating) – yet it still stays in your mind as you watch the movie unfold, wondering why King’s non-violent optimism for a peaceful, harmonious society has still not fully caught on.
It’s bizarre that I even have to write that sentence, due to living and working in vibrant, multi-cultural areas for my entire life. Yet every time I read the news, it concerns politicians bemoaning immigration, something which is a non-issue due to it’s economic benefits, but has only seemed to become one because of some age-old xenophobia inherent in British society. Every time I go on Facebook I end up unfriending people I went to school with due to them turning into far-right supporters. I don’t even go on YouTube anymore as the comment section contains some of the most ill-argued defences of every form of prejudice I’ve ever seen. There has never been a good argument in favour of prejudice, yet you look at YouTube and begin to think to yourself, “Well, at least Hitler was eloquent when he spoke”. In fact, it’s hard to read anything on the internet without turning into Samuel L. Jackson in Do the Right Thing, urging everyone to “Take a chill and cut this shit out!”
This is why Selma is not just another run-of-the-mill awards season biopic, but why it’s relevant and damned near essential viewing in modern society; as entire nations are still tearing themselves apart over outdated arguments about race and religion, we need a contemporary Martin Luther King-style figure. Selma is as inspiring and as hopeful for change as the great man himself was fifty years ago. In fact, it seems the reason we haven’t had a King biopic yet is because cinema was waiting for a director to make a film as worthy as the man himself- Ava DuVernay has stepped up to the daunting task and she has succeeded effortlessly.
Yet Selma hasn’t set the box office alight, nor has it swept the awards nominations in the way a film of its calibre should. It’s nominated for Best Picture, but sadly stands as the least likely to win that category; DuVernay’s masterful direction and David Oyelowo’s charismatic performance of King have gone completely unrewarded (praise too should go to Tom Wilkinson, whose portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson manages to play to his public persona without ever resorting to mere caricature). So, a film about one of the most inspirational figures in contemporary history should be a box office hit then, right? Similarly no. It’s a sad state of affairs when a movie about a pacifist who preached for togetherness is being roundly trounced at the box office by a knuckleheaded fanatic whose sole characteristic is that he is better at killing people than anybody else. I never mention box office, because for me it’s all about quality not quantity, yet here it can’t go unmentioned; society (even British society, where American Sniper is also a surprise hit) will still rather watch a film about a white man that creates racial tension than a film about a black man that succeeds in showing the problems that arise on the path to solving them.
Again, these are all thoughts that only arise after viewing, due to being so caught up in the events onscreen. Like Spielberg’s biopic of Lincoln, the path towards equal rights plays out as tense as any thriller, even though you know how the story plays out. The first march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is one of the tensest sequences I’ve seen recently; when the action does break out, it’s as horrifying as you’d expect and serves as an engaging counterpoint to years of history textbooks that have made schoolchildren view one of the most important events in 20th century society as boring.
The sequence that confirmed the movie’s brilliance to me was the ending. We are living in times when the biopic has far exceeded its saturation point, with half of this year’s best picture nominees being biopics (three of these coincidentally being the worst three movies nominated). Every biopic ends with the montage of people involved in the story, with text onscreen informing us to what they did next- maybe even next to photos of what they look like now. As a person who thinks this is a lazy way of concluding a story, as well as being bored by seeing it done to death, for the first time I felt inspired and a tiny bit emotional when that technique was used here.
As far as I can recall, the only time I’ve seen this technique used well before was in Goodfellas– and even Scorsese couldn’t hit the emotional highs that DuVernay reaches when she employs the technique here. But maybe the master stoke of the movie wasn’t the way it used this technique, but how it made me care about the characters to the point that I needed clarity on how all of their stories ended (regardless of whether or not I knew them before watching). Selma does the thing few biopics do- takes a story that you already know and gives it a unique approach, so you’re not left watching a history lesson you already know and are still as entertained and utterly delighted as possible.